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There's no getting away

So much hope may be riding on vacations that we can't help but end up disappointed.

May 10, 2004|Benedict Carey | Times Staff Writer

As summer approaches, millions of people around the country are strategizing about how best to spend their time off.

They're doing so, experts say, at a time when work and family demands are escalating, squeezing the amount of vacation time that people take and intensifying their expectations of it. Many see vacations as a chance not only to relax but also to learn about themselves, meditate on the direction of their lives and address personal problems, surveys show. And as often as not they return disappointed -- feeling as much in need of time off as before.

The psychological needs of vacationers can go unsatisfied, whether during a bicycle trip through New England, tropical week on the beach or holiday break at Grandma's. Researchers who study leisure have interviewed thousands of tourists of all ages, analyzed travel diaries and vacation memories, and joined tour groups to discover what sours a vacation.

Travel snafus aside, they say, frustrated tourists usually have no one to blame but themselves -- either because of too-high expectations, because they've revised the memories of past vacations or because the vacations simply didn't fit their needs.

"Socrates said it more than two thousand years ago, but it absolutely applies when you take time away: Know thyself," said Andrew Yiannakis, a University of Connecticut sociologist who studies personality and vacation choices. "As hard as people are working now, it's crucial to think about what the time can provide and what it can't."


Short-term benefits

When taken regularly through a working life, time off can be good medicine -- physically and emotionally. In a 2000 study of 12,338 middle-aged men at risk for heart disease, researchers at the State University of New York in Oswego found that those who did not take regular vacations were more likely to die over a nine-year period than those who did, especially from heart problems.

Several smaller workplace studies confirm the short-term benefits. People tend to sleep better after more than a week off, have fewer physical complaints than they did before the break, and report being more optimistic and energetic than they were before.

These effects may last five days or five weeks -- and depend on how satisfying the break was, researchers believe.

Vacation satisfaction is a hard thing to measure or describe, but psychologists say one component is simply the sense of being outside our usual roles, of experimenting with different identities, however tentatively. Careen Yarnal, a Pennsylvania State University researcher, has interviewed and traveled with an informal group of about 100 people, most middle-aged, who take an annual vacation together on a cruise liner.

"One of the things they find most satisfying is simply being able to behave differently than they usually do," she said. "It's little things: They dress differently, wear risque dresses or loud shirts, they say things they wouldn't say back home. They overindulge."

The need for a break seems greater than ever. American workers today put in three and a half hours more per week than they did in the 1970s, according to the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research center in New York that conducts ongoing national surveys. Couples, with or without children, report working about 10 hours more a week combined then they did in the 1970s.

In a 2001 study, the institute found that 26% of workers do not use all their yearly vacation time, usually because of job demands. And a 2002 survey of 1,893 tourists found that 3% of them report feeling such responsibility to their jobs that they have headaches, fatigue and nausea when they're away for more than a few days -- a phenomenon the Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets calls "leisure sickness," a combination of guilt about being away and dread of what crises are filling the in-box.

Any experienced vacationer knows it can take a few days to shake this sickness and mentally take leave. But after that, psychologists say, most people not only expect relief and invigoration -- they insist on it, regardless of how they actually feel during the vacation.

In a recent series of experiments, a team of investigators led by Northwestern University psychologist Leigh Thompson followed three groups of vacationers, interviewing them before, during and after their time off. One was a group of 21 men and women on a guided 12-day tour of Europe; another included 77 students on a five-day Thanksgiving break; and the third was 38 young adults on a three-week bicycle trip in California who kept diaries.

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